MACKEY: Strange Humors (2003). DAUGHERTY: Raise the Roof (2003/2007).
Brooklyn Bridge (2005). SYLER: The Hound of Heaven (1988).
Maureen Hurd (clarinet); Todd Quinlan (timpani); Rutgers Wind Ensemble/William
Naxos 8.572529 TT: 65:22.
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Mostly good performances, with an outstanding Mackey. Another entry in
Naxos's Wind Band Classics series, this one features American composers
and the Rutgers Wind Ensemble.
The program begins with John Mackey's Strange Humors, a piece inspired
by African drumming. However, to me it sounds Afro-Cuban -- not all that
big a stretch, I admit. Polyrhythms get the feet moving like crazy and
the piece builds to a terrific climax. For bands who can get through
this, it should prove a classic.
James Syler, a composer new to me, studied with the legendary (among
bandpeople) Alfred Reed. I've never been a fan of The Hound of Heaven or
of its poet, Francis Thompson. He had an undoubted gift for the telling
is a many-splendored thing," probably the best known), but his sentimental
poetic sensibility puts me off. His Hound of Heaven, about God pursuing
the errant soul out of love, strikes me as the gush of a reformed addict
(which he was) who's found Jesus and can't wait to tell you about it. To
be fair, G. K. Chesterton thought Thomson the most remarkable poet of his
time, the most promising since Browning, and Chesterton had read and admired
Thomas Hardy, although he opposed Hardy's world-view. Syler tries a tone
poem which reproduces the mood of the text's major sections. It opens splendidly,
capturing the fear of the prey as it flees the hound through a nightmare
city. It quickly loses interest from there, as does the poem itself, descending
into sentimental platitudes. It comes across as young man's music (Syler
wrote it in his 20s), consciously striving for spiritual significance,
so wanting to be taken seriously.
Daugherty becomes significant first because he expresses mainly himself
rather than what he ought to feel to become (in the words of James Joyce)
the Singer of His Race and second, because he has the musical chops to
involve a listener. Raise the Roof, essentially a Konzertstück for
timpani, exists in its original form for orchestra. In 2007, Daugherty
arranged it for timpani and band. The timpani part, stunningly virtuosic,
not only puts the soloist through the usual wham-boks but requires him
to play melody. Two themes comprise the entire work -- one highly rhythmic;
the other chant-like. Daugherty first develops the two themes separately,
but as the piece goes on, they clearly begin to twist around each other
through counterpoint that leaves the listener agape.
Brooklyn Bridge, a clarinet concerto, takes "the steel harp" as
its central conceit. Its four movements -- "East," "South," "North," and "West" --
consist of musical impressions of the views from the bridge (which pedestrians
can walk across) in those directions. "East" begins with dawn
over Brooklyn and Brooklyn Heights, as the city wakes up and starts moving. "South" shows
us the calm of the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. "West" depicts
the financial district and the shore that used to be dominated by the World
Trade Center. The clarinet plays a lonely cadenza throughout, as if remembering. "North" gives
us, according to the composer, Artie Shaw in the glory days of Rockefeller
Center's Rainbow Room. Apparently, the joint jumps with Latin Swing.
I felt as if I were in a Forties movie. The difference between Hound
of Heaven and Brooklyn Bridge is the difference between Poesy and Poetry or, in Mark
Twain's phrase, the lightning-bug and the lightning.
I doubt anybody could save the Hound, so no foul on the performers, who
at least open well with the score's A material. The Rutgers band does
best on the Mackey, which shows them off as a cracking good ensemble.
fine, but not great, on the rest. Raise the Roof gets a more
exciting run from Neeme Järvi and the Detroit Symphony on Naxos
8.559372. Berz and Rutgers seem stodgy in comparison. Timpanist Todd
Quinlan does okay,
but Brian Jones with the Detroit performs miracles. Like a stage magician,
Jones makes you wonder how he carries it off. With Quinlan, you hear
the small portamenti that betray his pedal-work on the timpani melodies. They
give Brooklyn Bridge a solid account, with an especially-exciting finale,
but, like soloist Maureen Hurd, you can imagine something better. Nevertheless,
three wonderful scores at Naxos prices.
S.G.S. (April 2011)